Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Testing the Waters

The increasingly dangerous situation in the South China Sea has become even riskier as the United States considers the possibility of initiating systematic naval and air patrols, possibly including Japanese warships and aircraft.

The recent week-long voyage of the USS Fort Worth through the region of the South China Sea known as the Spratlys can be seen as literally testing the waters. The provocative voyage comes at a time when the security architecture of East Asia is changing almost by the day.
Even while the Fort Worth was at sea, the Japanese cabinet sent two bills to the parliament that will considerably loosen the constitutional restraints on the use of Japan’s armed forces, allowing for closer cooperation with allies and close associates.

The proposed new laws, which seem certain to pass given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s commanding majority in both houses of parliament, put into effect the cabinet’s decision last year to “re-interpret” the country’s pacifistic constitution to allow for collective self-defense.
At the same time, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (navy) has conducted joint exercises with the Philippine Navy, and Manila announced that the US Navy would have access to eight bases in the Philippines, including a new one on Palawan that is close to the Spratlys.

Washington has been increasingly concerned about how to respond do Beijing’s frantic efforts to turn tiny atolls and reefs and other land features that barely stick up above the water at low tide into artificial islands through land reclamation.
The reclamation work that is taking place on half a dozen reefs in the Spratlys is essentially turning some of them into potential mini-aircraft carriers with runways long enough at 3,000 meters to handle high performance jet aircraft.

Japan might be obliged to send its own patrols in the South Seas. Earlier this year Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, Commander of the US Seventh Fleet, proposed such joint patrols. Tokyo demurred but the new laws would make such missions possible as they remove geographical constraints on Japanese military operations.
The USS Forth Worth is a Littoral Combat Ship specifically designed to operate close to shore and in shallow waters, such as those around the disputed Spratlys. It is permanently based in Singapore, which will ultimately be home to four such ships. They are a key element in President Barack Obama’s “Pivot” to Asia.

Beijing is well aware of these ships and their mission. It anticipated the Fort Worth’s patrol and clearly didn’t like it. A Chinese navy frigate shadowed the American warship throughout its cruise through the Spratly islands, and the American ship “encountered multiple [Chinese] navy vessels” during its patrol, according to the official Navy website.
China’s foreign ministry has already voiced “serious concern” over the cruise. “Freedom of navigation does not mean that the military or aircraft of a foreign country can willfully enter the territorial waters or the air space of another country,” said a foreign ministry spokesman about the cruise,

Freedom of navigation through the South China Sea is the overriding concern of both the US and Japan. The latter obtains 80 percent of its vital petroleum supplies from the Middle East in tankers that pass through the South Sea waters.
Neither country takes a stand on who owns what in that ocean. The various atolls and reefs are claimed in whole or part by at least six countries: China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Adding to the uncertainty is the so called “Nine-Dash Line” on official Chinese maps that make it appear that China is claiming some 90 percent of the entire South China Sea its own sovereign territory. Beijing has never clarified exactly what that map really means.
The Pentagon is undoubtedly carefully analyzing the results of the Fort Worth’s cruise and pondering the next step. One option, of course, would be to continue with the solitary patrols, avoiding close contact with any of the disputed islands, but Washington could take things to a higher level.

One option would be to send a warship into the twelve-mile territorial zone of one or more of the Chinese claimed reefs. Washington does not recognize the legitimacy of the territorial zones in the Spratlys because, under international law, an artificial island cannot be considered sovereign territory.

The US Navy routinely makes “Freedom of Navigation Operations” around the world to assert freedom of navigation against countries that it believes are not following international maritime law. An example is the Gulf of Sidra in the Mediterranean Sea, which Libya at one time claimed as sovereign territory.
Judging by the reaction of Beijing, any violation of the territorial waters it claims in the South China Sea would almost certainly provoke a response.

One option considered likely by many observers, would be for Beijing to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Spratlys. Such zones require that aircraft flying through the zone file a flight plan with China. It could enforce the ADIZ with fighters based on one of the new air strips that China is building on some of the reefs and atolls.
Beijing surprised the world in November, 2013, when it announced a new ADIZ over much of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu islands. But it did not extend along the entire Chinese coast line. Beijing left open the possibilities of announcing more ADIZs.

Countries with ADIZs usually extend them along their entire coastline. The fact that Beijing has made no new announcements in the past year and a half strongly suggests that they are not really there for defense purposes. Rather they are counters in the on-going geopolitical contest over who owns the seas.
If Beijing were to declare and ADIZ in the deep South China Sea, hundreds of miles  from any mainland based  aircraft, suggests that they see this move as a means of annexing a chunk of the South China Sea without really annexing it.

Todd Crowell is the author of the Coming War between China and Japan published as an Amazon Single.








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